15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Berlin
Berlin, the capital of Germany and the country's largest city, is also a major center of politics, culture, media, and science. Noted for its cultural flair, Berlin is home to the world famous Berlin Opera and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, while its diverse art scene encompasses hundreds of galleries, events, and museums, including those centered around Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
First mentioned in the 13th century, it wasn't until 1871 that Berlin became the capital of the German Empire, and despite the devastation of WWII followed by decades of decay to the east of the infamous Berlin Wall, the rebuilt city today stands as a testament to the country's economic and cultural importance. Berlin offers an eclectic mix of new and classic architecture, dynamic entertainment, shopping, and a wide variety of sports and cultural institutions.
See also: Where to Stay in Berlin
1 The Brandenburg Gate
Nothing says "Berlin" quite like the Brandenburg Gate (Brandenburger Tor), long the city's most defining monument and its answer to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Loosely modeled on the Acropolis in Athens and built for King Frederick Wilhelm II in 1791, this 26-meter-high sandstone monument in the Mitte district's Pariser Platz was Berlin's first Neoclassical structure, notable for its four-horse chariot, its six large columns on each side forming five passages for use by traffic (the center one reserved for royalty), and the two buildings used by toll-collectors and guards. Brandenburg Gate continues to be of symbolic importance and has seen many famous visitors, including Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. It was also the scene of a poignant gesture when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev, and Poland's Lech Walesa walked through the gate in 1999 to commemorate the tearing down of the Berlin Wall 20 years earlier.
Address: Pariser Platz, 10117 Berlin
2 Museum Island
Between the River Spree and the Kupfergraben, a 400-meter-long canal, Museum Island (Museumsinsel) is a wonderful part of old Berlin to explore. Here you'll find many of the city's oldest and most important museums, including the Old Museum (Altes Museum), built in 1830 to house the Crown Jewels and other royal treasures. Further development saw the construction of the New Museum (Neues Museum) in 1855, followed by the National Gallery in 1876, and the Bode Museum in 1904, home to one of the city's finest collections of antiquities. If you're only able to see one or two museums due to time restrictions, make sure one of them is the Pergamon with its spectacular reconstructed historic buildings from the Middle East. Also of interest for art buffs is the Old National Gallery (Alte Nationalgalerie) with its fine collections of 19th-century paintings. Adding to the whole experience is the fact Museum Island is almost entirely devoid of traffic.
3 The Berlin Wall Memorial and Checkpoint Charlie
The history of the Berlin Wall began in 1961 when East Germany sealed off the eastern part of the city to stem the flood of refugees from east to west. By the time it was torn down in 1989, the four-meter-high wall extended 155 kilometers, dissected 55 streets, and possessed 293 observation towers and 57 bunkers. Today, only small stretches of this graffiti-covered travesty remain, including a 1.4-kilometer stretch preserved as part of the Berlin Wall Memorial, a chilling reminder of the animosity that once divided Europe. Highlights include the Marienfelde Refugee Center Museum with its exhibits relating to the one-and-a-half million people who passed through Berlin as refugees, the Monument in Memory of the Divided City and the Victims of Communist Tyranny, the Window of Remembrance, and a Visitor Center with views over the remains of the wall. Also of interest is Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie marking the best-known crossing point between East and West Berlin and with displays and artifacts tracing the history of human rights.
Address: Bernauer Straße 111, 13355 Berlin
4 Editor's Pick Charlottenburg Palace and Park
Berlin's oldest and largest Prussian estate, the late 17th-century Charlottenburg Palace was for decades the most important place of residence for German royalty. Beautifully restored, this huge palace boasts many important features, from its massive 50-meter-high central dome to the exquisite Orangery added in 1712. A highlight of the property's tour program is a visit to the New Wing with its State Apartments and fine Banqueting Halls. Built in 1746, it's here visitors get a glimpse of the splendor in which the Prussian Kings and Electors lived, from Frederick I's bedroom and study with their fine furnishings and paintings, to the apartments occupied by his successors. Highlights include the State Dining Room and the 42-meter-long Golden Gallery with its rich gilded stucco. Over in the Old Palace is the Porcelain Cabinet, home to one of Germany's most important porcelain collections, along with displays of valuable items including the Crown Jewels. Other highlights are the Palace Park dating from 1697 and home to the New Pavilion (Neue Pavilion) built in 1788 in the style of a Neapolitan villa, and the Belvedere Teahouse with its fine collection of Berlin porcelain. Be sure to visit the Mausoleum with its royal tombs, as well as the Grand Courtyard with its large statue of the Great Elector, Frederick William of Brandenburg.
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- Exploring Berlin's Charlottenburg Palace
5 Unter den Linden
Berlin's most famous street, Unter den Linden - literally translated as Under the Lime Trees Avenue - has for centuries been a draw for visitors and locals alike. This broad avenue, stretching some 1,400 meters and connecting Pariser Platz in front of the Brandenburg Gate to the Lustgarten, began as a humble riding track in 1573 for royalty on their way to the Tiergarten to hunt, a route formalized in 1647 when the Great Elector had six rows of trees planted, including the famous limes. Today, its two car lanes are separated by a wide central pedestrian area that extends much of the street's length and provides a wonderful place to relax and take in the bustling city around you. Notable landmarks are the Arsenal and the Gendarmenmarkt, the Opera House, and St. Hedwig's Cathedral.
6 The Gendarmenmarkt
The Gendarmenmarkt, one of Berlin's largest squares, is dominated by three large historic buildings - the Konzerthaus, the French Cathedral (Französischer Dom), and the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) - that together form one of the most picturesque corners of the city. Laid out in the 17th century and named after a regiment of Gendarmerie that had a guardhouse here, it remains one of the city's most popular places, day and night. The Konzerthaus, built in 1821 on the site of an earlier theater, has long been one of Berlin's most important theaters - Goethe's Iphigenie was performed at its opening - and is as famous for its architectural splendor as it is for the first-rate performances of Konzerthausorchester Berlin, one of the country's most popular symphony orchestras. In front of the building stands the Schiller Monument, notable for its four female figures on the fountain canopy representing Lyric Poetry (with a harp), Drama (with a dagger), History (with tablets displaying the names of Goethe, Beethoven, Michelangelo, and others), and Philosophy (with a parchment scroll inscribed Discover Yourself). If visiting in winter, be sure to time your visit to coincide with the Gendarmenmarkt's popular Christmas Market.
Another well known square in Berlin, Alexanderplatz (popularly known as "Alex") was the very center of East Berlin life and is now home to the World Time Clock, a popular meeting place. Nearby is the Television Tower (nicknamed "Telespargel") with panoramic views of the city.
Address: Gendarmenmarkt, 10117 Berlin
7 The Rebuilt Reichstag
With the proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles in 1871, Berlin acquired the role as capital of the Empire and found itself in need of a larger, more prestigious building to serve as home to its government. The foundation stone for the new Reichstag, a huge and elegantly proportioned Neo-Renaissance palace, was laid by the Emperor himself in 1884, and completed ten years later. After its destruction by fire in 1933, much of the former structure was rebuilt in 1970, but with the decision to return the seat of government to Berlin from Bonn after reunification, the Reichstag underwent a complete renovation in the late 1990s. A highlight of this magnificent reconstruction is the replacement dome, the Kuppel, made of glass and offering superb views of the surrounding city, especially at night from the Rooftop Restaurant. Note that entry to the Dome and Terrace is ticketed, and due to demand, it's recommended that tickets be requested in advance (registration is available on the day, but expect a two or three hour wait). Free English language audio guides are available.
Address: Platz der Republik 1, 11011 Berlin
8 Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
One of Berlin's most interesting landmarks, Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche) is in many ways two churches: the ultra-modern new church designed in 1961, and next to it, the ruins of the original, including most of the 63-meter-high tower. Completed in 1895 in honor of Emperor Wilhelm I, the original was destroyed in 1943, but its remains were incorporated into the new complex. The result is now a major Berlin landmark that also serves as a war memorial, with a memorial hall installed containing mosaic remains, architectural remnants, and photos. The centerpiece is a figure of Christ from the old church and a Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by German bombs earlier in WWII. Guided tours are available, and visitors are welcome to participate in Sunday services; Evening Music Services featuring cantatas, organ recitals, and choral music; and regular weekday services.
Address: Breitscheidplatz, 10789 Berlin
9 Berlin Cathedral Church
Famous for its 75-meter-high dome with its old bell from 1532, Berlin Cathedral Church was completed in 1905 on the site of an earlier cathedral dating from the time of Frederick the Great. Built in the New Baroque style, the building - the largest church in Berlin - is divided into three main sections: the Memorial Church, the Baptismal and Nuptial Church, and the Parish Church. After decades of painstaking work to repair war damage, the church has been returned to its former glory, and highlights of a visit include the Imperial Staircase, decorated with bronze cornices and 13 tempera paintings by Berlin landscape painter Albert Hertel in 1905, and the Imperial Gallery with its views of the area below the dome. Also of note is the Hohenzollern Crypt containing nearly 100 sarcophagi, coffins, and monuments from the 16th to 20th centuries, including those of the Great Elector and his wife Dorothea, and Frederick I and his wife Sophie Charlotte. Try to time your visit for one of the cathedral's many concerts or music services, and be sure to climb the 270 steps to the Dome for superb views over Museum Island. (English language guided tours are available.)
Address: Am Lustgarten, 10178 Berlin
10 The French Cathedral
The counterpart to the equally impressive Berlin Cathedral Church, also in the Gendarmenmarkt, is the French Cathedral (Französischer Dom). Consisting of the Friedrichstadt Church and the domed tower, which was added later, the French Cathedral was built in 1705 for the substantial Huguenot community that had settled in Berlin in 1685. Highlights include the 70-meter-high tower with its five-octave carillon (its 60 bells are rung by means of a keyboard), the 20-meter Tower Rooms (Turmstuben), and a 40-meter-high viewing balustrade with excellent panoramic views of Berlin. The redesigned ground floor of the church houses the Huguenot Museum, with exhibits illustrating the history of the Huguenots in France and Berlin.
Address: Gendarmenmarkt 5, 10117 Berlin
11 Berlin Zoological Gardens
Zoologischer Garten Berlin is the oldest such establishment in Germany and remains one of Berlin's most popular attractions, welcoming more than three million guests each year. Established in 1844 and completely rebuilt after WWII, this very modern zoo and its aquarium does an excellent job of displaying the animals in its care in their natural environment, and has earned a reputation for its many successful breeding programs. With more than 15,000 animals representing some 1,600 species, including pandas and apes in large open-air enclosures, as well as predator and nocturnal animal houses and Europe's biggest aviary, expect to spend the best part of a day here. Be sure to also visit Aquarium Berlin, one of the zoo's main attractions. Built in 1913, it remains one of the largest such facilities in Germany with more than 9,000 creatures housed in its 250 tanks, including reef and tiger sharks, jellyfish, tropical fish, reptiles, and insects. Another zoo of interest is Tierpark Berlin, home to some 7,250 animals from 840 different species.
Address: Hardenbergplatz 8, 10787 Berlin
12 The Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden and Museum
Originally the kitchen and herb garden of the Royal Palace, the Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden (Botanischer Garten Berlin-Dahlem) was built in 1679 on the instructions of the Grand Elector. After being transferred to Dahlem at the end of the 19th century, it became one of the largest and most important botanic gardens in the world. Covering 104 acres, the site is home to more than 22,000 different species of plants, including a series of open beds arranged geographically, an arboretum with 2,200 species of trees and shrubs, a section devoted to medicinal plants, 16 hothouses for plants from tropical and subtropical areas - including the Great Tropical House - and a large pond forming the centerpiece of the biotope for marine and marsh plants. Also worth seeing is the Electoral Garden with its 17th-century garden greenery, a garden restaurant, and the excellent Botanical Museum with its herbarium featuring more than two million plants and an extensive library.
Address: Königin-Luise-Strasse 6-8, 14195 Berlin
13 The Nikolai Quarter
Berlin's Nikolai Quarter (Nikolaiviertel) is considered the heart of the old city, and is where you'll find many of its oldest and most popular attractions, including St. Nicholas' Church (Nikolaikirche), a number of museums, and a fun history trail. Recent redevelopment has seen this pedestrian friendly quarter become home to many small buildings set along narrow streets full of nooks and crannies and home to restaurants, cafés, shops, and craft workshops selling everything from basketry to wooden crafts. Highlights include the district's many old fountains, lanterns, and lattice-windows on the older houses, and historic buildings such as Ephraim Palace, built in the 1760s and housing exhibits relating to Berlin's rich artistic and cultural history (be sure to visit its exquisite grand staircase). Also of note is Knoblauch House, built in 1760 and representative of the former homes of the city's wealthy Jewish merchants and tradesmen.
14 Grunewald Forest
Perhaps surprisingly for such a big city, Berlin has managed to retain an area of some 32 square kilometers as forest. Known as the Grunewald (Greenwood), this heavily treed area takes its name from the Hunting Lodge built in 1542 by Elector Joachim II. It's a lovely natural area of mixed oak, beech, pine, birch, acacia, and poplar trees, and provides shelter for an abundance of wildlife including birds, deer, and even wild pigs. Highlights include its three little lakes - the Pechsee, Barssee, and Teufelssee - which form part of a popular nature reserve, while in the eastern section are the larger lakes: Hundekehlesee, Grunewaldsee, Schlachtensee, and Krumme Lanke. Together with a nine-kilometer stretch of riverbank along the Havel, the lakes offer numerous opportunities for watersports and bathing. Other popular features are the 80-meter-high artificial hill, the Teufelsberg, atop which stands the ruins of a US "listening station" (a spy facility, which can be toured); the Grunewald Tower, a 19th-century memorial to Emperor Wilhelm I; and the original Hunting Lodge (Jagdschloss Grunewald), now a museum with an impressive collection of artworks from the 15th to 19th centuries (guided tours only).
Address: Hüttenweg 100, 14193 Berlin
15 Grosser Tiergarten and the Victory Column
Literally translated as the "Animal Garden," Berlin's Grosser Tiergarten has long been an important part of the city. Originally an Electoral hunting reserve in which deer, wild pigs, and other game were kept, it was transformed into a park in 1700, designed originally in French style, and later converted into an English-style landscaped park. Attractively laid out with an abundance of trees and shrubs and expanses of grass and flower borders, the Tiergarten covers some 520 acres and is a favorite spot for relaxation, walking, and boating. The park also contains numerous important statues and monuments, including the Statue of Queen Luise erected in 1880, depicting her in a long dress with a relief recalling her care of wounded soldiers during the War of 1806, and a Monument to Frederick Wilhelm III unveiled in 1849 with reliefs reflecting the King's peace-loving disposition. The most important of the Tiergarten's monuments, however, is the massive Victory Column, a superb 70-meter-tall structure built on a roundabout and crowned by an eight-meter-high gold statue of Victoria (dubbed Golden Lizzy by locals). Completed in 1873, it's well worth climbing the 285 steps to the top of this magnificent monument for the views over the Tiergarten.
Where to Stay in Berlin for Sightseeing
For those wanting to be within walking distance of top attractions such as the Brandenburg Gate and Museum Island, the best place to stay is Berlin's Mitte district, the city's historic center. Here are some highly-rated hotels to consider in or near this area:
- Luxury Hotels: One of Berlin's most iconic hotels is the magnificent Das Stue, centrally located and overlooking the western section of the beautiful Tiergarten. At the Tiergarten's opposite end, the Regent Berlin and Hotel Adlon Kempinski are just steps away from the historic Brandenburg Gate and are perfectly positioned to explore the city's famous Museum Island. Both are also just a short walk from the tree-lined Unter den Linden, famous for its boutiques, cafés, and restaurants.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Just minutes away from the Tiergarten and close to excellent dining and shopping, the Hampton by Hilton Berlin City West is a great base from which to explore other areas of Berlin thanks to its proximity to the city's excellent subway (U-Bahn) system. Another popular option is The Circus Hotel, just minutes from Museum Island. Also of note is the funky, modern Hotel Gat Point Charlie, which as its name suggests, is adjacent to one of Berlin's most famous landmarks.
- Budget Hotels: For those on a tight budget, city-center options worth considering include the Ibis Berlin Kurfurstendamm, a short walk from the Tiergarten, and Motel One Berlin-Hackescher Markt, not far from the city's museum district. The Hotel Britz, although a little further away, is worth considering for those wanting a more intimate feel and is popular for its proximity to public transit and excellent breakfast.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Berlin
- Sightseeing: There are several great ways to see Berlin, whether it is by bus, bike, or on foot. One of the easiest ways to see the city and learn a little about the history is on a double decker, open-air Berlin City Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tour. This tour offers 20 stops at various points of interest, with the option to get off or stay on the bus. For a more in-depth, feet-on-the-ground experience, the Berlin Highlights and Hidden Sites Historical Walking Tour offers a four-hour guided walking tour and includes both major attractions and little known sites, from the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie to Hitler's former bunker. If you really want to get active take a 4.5-hour guided Berlin Bike Tour to see the city's top attractions and learn about the history.
- Day Trips: The Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Tour from Berlin is a six-hour day trip to one of the first concentration camps established by the Third Reich. Today, it is a national memorial. This is a historian-led tour and includes admission to the site.